In the spring of 2021, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions loosened, Talia Connelly was among the many people feeling isolated and yearning to restore the sense of connection with their community. To rebuild these relationships, Connelly leaned on a newly purchased volleyball net, a ball, and a powerful resource: the public park. Public spaces, which served as a lifeline for people during the pandemic, can be more thoughtfully designed to better foster human connection and combat loneliness.
After corralling friends for a casual volleyball game, Connelly headed to a grassy spot in Lincoln Park, across the street from her apartment in Somerville. Several passersby, observing the group’s overhand serves and obvious camaraderie, asked to join the game. As Connelly, her friends, and their soon-to-be friends cleaned up the net after playing, they started a group chat to coordinate play times, resulting in what is now a group of more than 500 community members, and growing, who get together almost daily to socialize and play volleyball.
Increasing numbers of people feel isolated today. In a report in May 2023, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy raised concerns about what he called the nation’s “other epidemic”: loneliness. Murthy highlighted why, given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, Americans must prioritize building social connections just as we have prioritized other critical public health issues, such as curbing cigarette smoking. A growing body of research, including a 2021 study that found that frequent visits to green spaces decreased people’s use of depression medication, points to the many ways a dose of public space can improve people’s well-being. I call public spaces that do this well “sticky” — places that invite people to stop, stay, and connect.
As an urban designer advocating for more sustainable, livable, and equitable cities, I hear communities express the need for sticky public spaces daily. To create them, I work with people across Greater Boston to transform unused storefronts into temporary vibrant social infrastructure, like community pop-ups that host regular events and serve as communal living rooms. These spaces make people feel welcome, represented, and connected to their neighborhoods, and this, in turn, builds social connections between visitors.
Though the Lincoln Park volleyball group formed organically, it was no accident. The park was designed to spur the interactions that allowed the spontaneous group to grow. In 2018, the City of Somerville renovated the park, turning it from baseball fields into a lively space with a skate park, parkour area, basketball court, multiple playgrounds, hammock poles, a community garden, and much more. In the park’s redesign, these areas flow into one another — for example, the central path cuts through the skate park — creating connections between uses and users.
The park is also well integrated into the dense neighborhood of multifamily homes that surrounds it. On streets that dead-end at the park, the sidewalks continue without gates or other barriers. This confluence of environmental and programmatic design creates a park that is sticky.
Sticky places aren’t just nice to have — they can be the difference between life and death. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg found that during the 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed hundreds of people, communities with better access to places where people gather and form social connections saw a lower mortality rate because those connections increased the likelihood that people would check in on neighbors. In 2021, researchers at the University of Cambridge made similar findings about towns that already had community facilities when COVID lockdowns were enforced. Those facilities were natural places for the creation of aid groups that helped those most in need during the pandemic.
Not all public places offer equal access. Some, like coffee shops, barber shops, and bars, require payment for a product or service for entry. Other spaces may not feel welcoming to all people, such as those in the LGBTQ community. Access may also be limited for those with physical, mental, or age-related disabilities. Such barriers can disproportionately affect people who are already marginalized, a cycle that compounds isolation.
Social infrastructure, like physical infrastructure, requires upkeep, investment, and adaptation. All communities deserve to have local public spaces that are designed to be sticky. Just as cities determine which roads and bridges need repair, so should they assess where their social infrastructure is lacking.
City leaders can start by asking community members to finish the sentence “I wish I had a place to . . . " They can then take what they hear and use whatever space is available — an extra room in a library, a disused municipal building, even a parking lot — to create that place.
Aaron Greiner is founder and executive director of CultureHouse, a nonprofit that improves livability in communities by transforming underutilized spaces into vibrant social infrastructure.